Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s selection as the Opposition’s vice-presidential candidate has established the crucial importance of Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar in any united formation the Opposition plans for 2019, when the next Lok Sabha elections are due.

There could not be a better choice for vice-president (the post falls vacant in August). Not just because of Gandhi’s impeccable lineage, being the grandson of both Mahatma Gandhi and the first Indian Governor-General of India C Rajagopalachari, but also because of his varied accomplishments: he is a former governor and ambassador, was secretary to the late President R Venkataraman, and has an insider’s view of the functioning of the system. But, above all, he represents the old school values that helped build modern India. He can be expected to help fashion the “alternative narrative” that Nitish Kumar feels is a prerequisite for any meaningful Opposition unity to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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It is clear that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had reservations about recommending Gopalkrishna Gandhi for the post of president, for which the election is scheduled for July 17. The Congress, which has “cultified” the Nehru-Gandhi family over the years, has always been wary of anything that could even remotely lead to a (Mahatma) Gandhi versus (Nehru) Gandhi face-off.

In the 1989 general elections, it became a Gandhi versus Gandhi fight when Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s older brother Rajmohan Gandhi unsuccessfully contested against Rajiv Gandhi on a Janata Dal ticket, though VP Singh went on to replace Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister.

Given that the arithmetic is stacked against the Opposition in Parliament, Gopalkrishna Gandhi is unlikely to win. But only time will tell whether his nomination could lead to the generation of a “Gandhi+Gandhi” synergy on the political front, with the families of both the Mahatma and Jawaharlal Nehru fighting on the same side once again.

Peace offering to Nitish Kumar

This decision on the vice-presidential candidate stems from the compulsions of a weakened Congress, battling with its back to the wall. In agreeing to Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s candidature, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has displayed pragmatism and an ability to read the writing on the wall (just as she did in refusing the mantle of prime minister in 2004, after leading the United Progressive Alliance to victory in the general elections).

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At the end of the day, the choice of Gopalkrishna Gandhi by 18 Opposition parties, led by the Indian National Congress, is an olive branch to a miffed Nitish Kumar, who has otherwise been playing footsie with the Bharatiya Janata Party. In June, Kumar announced his support for the BJP-led government’s presidential candidate, Ram Nath Kovind. However, this time round, he has backed Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s candidature, media reports said.

It was Nitish Kumar who had first suggested Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s name for the post of president to Sonia Gandhi, a suggestion that had found favour with leaders such as Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, and the Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar. Opposition leaders had expected Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to make the announcement at the 94th birthday celebration of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam patriarch M Karunanidhi in June, for which they had all gathered in Chennai. But the Congress dithered and put off the decision.

The BJP seized the initiative and declared Kovind its candidate, and Nitish Kumar, annoyed with the Congress, declared his support to him.

Bihar, where the Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar partnership stands for good governance and consolidation of backward classes, has so far withstood any pressure from the BJP. (Credit: IANS)

The importance of Bihar

Bihar remains the prize Narendra Modi is yet to capture, having failed to defeat the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress in the 2015 Assembly elections. The BJP is now trying to divide the alliance with a plethora of corruption cases against Lalu Prasad and his family. On Friday, the Central Bureau of Investigation registered a case against Lalu Prasad and his son Tejashwi Yadav, the deputy chief minister of Bihar, on the charge of acquiring land for cheap from a private firm allegedly in exchange for favours given during the former’s tenure as Union railway minister.

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Small wonder then that the BJP has offered to support the Nitish Kumar government from outside if he breaks ranks with Lalu Prasad over Tejashwi Yadav’s continuation as deputy chief minister. Till the time of writing this piece, Nitish Kumar had urged Tejashwi Yadav to “come clean” with details about the cases against him. Yadav, on his part, has ruled out any threat to the mahagathbandhan.

With the Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar partnership standing for consolidation of backward classes and good governance, Bihar has withstood Modi’s charms in what has otherwise been a victory run for the BJP all over the North Indian plains – Delhi being the other exception, though here too the ruling Aam Aadmi Party has lost a lot of ground.

Just as Bihar is supremely important for Modi, both for the arithmetical and psychological boost it would give him in the run-up to the big battle in 2019, the state also represents the possibility of the beginning of a new politics for the Opposition.

Opposition strategy for 2019

The crucial question, however, remains unaddressed: does the Opposition have a political strategy for 2019 that goes beyond the nomination of Gopalkrishna Gandhi as its vice-presidential choice, in what is meant to be a show of Opposition unity?

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Theoretically, the Opposition parties do not need convincing on this count: they know they have to swim together to survive. Practically, this would need a consummate crafting, state by state, of one-on-one fights, constituency-wise, between the BJP/National Democratic Alliance and one or another Opposition party. The coming together of Uttar Pradesh rivals Mayawati, of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and Akhilesh Yadav, of the Samajwadi Party, would be the linchpin of any Opposition centrepiece, but then the BJP can be expected to use everything – “saam, daam, dand, bhed” (advice, price, punishment, secrets) – to prevent this from happening.

There is then the tricky, and as yet unclear, question of who will be the face of the Opposition that will take on Modi in 2019.

The Opposition has to contend with a driven duo in Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah, who is already on a 95-day vistaar yatra (party expansion tour) of the country. The BJP is doing its homework in great detail and planning state by state how to win the 2019 elections. Having already peaked in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and more recently in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is now focusing on making gains in states where it had virtually no presence till recently. There is Tamil Nadu, where it has forged an understanding with movie star Rajinikanth – who is reportedly all set to enter politics – in the vacuum left by Jayalalithaa’s death. Odisha, where it made strides in civic polls in February. West Bengal, which is seen as “project number one” for Shah, with Narada-Sarada – Narada refers to sting operations that allegedly exposed corruption by state ministers while Sarada refers to a major chit fund scam – and communal polarisation in the state working in the BJP’s favour. And Kerala.

As things stand, the best case scenario for the Opposition parties would be to ensure that Modi’s BJP does not get a clear majority in 2019 and is reined in by its dependence on coalition partners. And yet, politics has a way of rarely remaining static.